Wichita State survivors remember the significance of plane crash 49 years later


Morgan Anderson

Melissa Hasty, Director of Campus Ministry, reads the prayer at WSU’s Football Memorial ’70. This was the 49th annual ceremony in honor of the lives lost during the plane crash.

Bruce Gerleman looked out the window of his plane. What he saw wasn’t a pleasant sight. Oil was spilling from his plane’s engine.

Wichita State was traveling to Logan, Utah, for a game against Utah State in the upcoming days. It was a clear and calm day, and Gerleman’s plane, the second of two that was scheduled to land, arrived safely in Logan. The first plane, however, wasn’t at the airport.

At 1:14 p.m., the first plane carrying passengers made up of WSU football players, coaches, and Athletic Director Bert Katzenmeyer crashed into the side of a mountain eight miles west of Silver Plume, Colorado. Out of 37 people, 31 died.

Pilot error, including poor in-flight decisions and inadequate pre-flight planning, was reported as the official cause of the crash.

“The crash was the most traumatic event in all of our lives,” Gerleman said Wednesday.

Every year on Oct. 2, members of the team come back to Wichita to remember those who lost their lives on that day years ago.

“We come to celebrate and be thankful for the lives that we have, that we were spared and given, and be thankful that we were the ones that survived, but to also honor those guys that never had a chance to live a life like we did.”

Gerleman is one of the lucky ones who gets to continue his life today. But he said the crash victims will never be forgotten.

“For the memorial, they say, those were some of the luckiest guys in the world. Who else when they die has a memorial in remembrance of them every year for 49 years?” Gerleman said. “Every year, all of these people come back to remember them. Most of us, when we die, go up to the cemetery and no one shows up out there for you.”

“These guys are frozen in time as these big, strong, fast, powerful, young men at the height of their career — at the height of their life — the healthiest people during that time, and that’s how we remember them.

The NCAA stepped in after the accident to play a bigger role in ensuring travel safety for college athletes.

“They had chartered some really old planes,” Gerleman said. “After this accident, it actually was a change for the good, because the NCAA got involved and started requiring all college travel to review all the travel arrangements for universities around the nation.”

Morgan Anderson
Former football players Bill Moore and Bruce Gerleman place a wreath in memory of the lives lost during the 1970 plane crash at the Football Memorial ’70.

Not only did Wichita State’s incident improve travel conditions nationwide, but the NCAA also put in new rules that would allow college freshmen to play in varsity games. Before the crash, the NCAA didn’t allow freshmen to participate in games. In the aftermath, in order to allow the Shockers to keep playing, the NCAA passed an amendment to allow freshman the right to participate.

“The other part of that is after the crash, the NCAA ruled that freshmen could play college sports,” Gerleman said. “That’s the first time in the history of the NCAA that freshmen could play. Up to that point, there was a freshman team and the varsity team, and so that changed dramatically in college sports.”

Morgan Anderson
Wichita community members gathered at the Football Memorial ’70 to attend the annual ceremony in remembrance of the Wichita plane crash in 1970.

Ed Plopa, another team member that was on the plane that landed safely, said the annual gathering is an important opportunity to connect with others who were affected by the deadly crash.

“Some people come a long way and I get to see a lot of my buddies this way,” Plopa said. “I get to see the daughter of the head coach who was only 15-years-old at the time of the crash, and over the years, I had the chance to really meet with her and know her. I’ve made lasting bonds because of it.

“I don’t expect a total embracing of Wichita State or the city, because they simply weren’t there. Most people think that was the last year that we had the football team, and we had football until 1986. That was 16 years later.”

One thing that Plopa said he’s noticed over the years is the lack of knowledge about the event.

“As time has worn on, less people know about it and don’t understand the significance of it,” he said.

The people who attend the memorial every year, including Plopa, have discussed moving next year’s memorial service to the crash site in Colorado because it will be the 50th anniversary.

“There is already talk about having a committee formed and a lot of stuff that they’ve really organized for a larger attendance,” Plopa said. “We also plan to periodically take trips to the mountainside, and next year, we plan to have one of the survivors there sometime in September.”

Gerleman said that for him, the memorial is also about being there for his fallen teammates and friends.

“It is just to honor their memories and honor their sacrifice and be thankful for our lives that we were given, and just come together as a team and preach all those stories and re-bond again as a team,” Gerleman said. “We are still a team.”

Morgan Anderson
Members of the Madrigal choir join hands and sing at the 1970 plane crash ceremony on Oct. 2.